Poetry Madness

Wednesday, April 17th, 2002


West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story

by Tamim Ansary

An Afghan-American Story

A review by Adrienne Miller

A gently told memoir by the guy who on 9/12 wrote the e-mail that probably became the most forwarded e-mail ever. (I have no actual evidence to support this; call it a hunch.) Tamim Ansary's e-mail—the gist of which was "I'm from Afghanistan, and things are much more complex than you, in your freaked-out state, understand right now" — appears in the back of the book. "I've been hearing a lot of talk about 'bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age,'" it begins. "When you think 'Taliban,' think 'Nazis.' When you think 'Bin Laden,' think 'Hitler.'" You remember this e-mail.

Ansary comes at all this from a rather unique perspective. His mother was, in 1945, the first American woman in Kabul; his father was a "Volga-level" (as opposed to "Mercedes-level") public official in Afghanistan. Ansary, a child of two worlds, and one who feels not quite at home in either, refers to his family as "Americans with an asterisk." His descriptions of his Afghan childhood are luxe and delicious — crammed with beautiful textiles and wondrous smells, bazaars, casbahs, compounds with courtyards, servants, strawberry patches, ragged mountains, and vaguely homosexual prepubescent relationships. The childhood, in short, of an aristocrat. When Ansary is an adolescent, his father accepts a job in America, moving the family, thus taking them away forever from Afghanistan. West of Kabul, East of New York, gets a little bogged down in the middle (the middle being where most bogs tend to happen), with Ansary's move to the West Coast and subsequent crisis of faith with Islam, but then picks up again with his adulthood journey through the Middle East. Now would be my opportunity to make some kind of large summing-up statement about Afghanistan, or world politics, or foreign policy, but I'll just leave you with this: West of Kabul, East of New York is affable, good-natured, and in love with its country. The author's profound, complicated homesickness burns across every page.

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.

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